(Preliminary note: I’d like to welcome fellow Hiram Grange author Kevin Lucia to the blog for the day. We’ve done a bit of a swap, and my witterings can be found on his website – over to you Kevin)
An interesting thing happened in the car on the way to work the other day. I was listening to the radio when Saving Abel’s song “Sex is Good” came on. I turned it off. Didn’t feel like listening to a song about a guy using a girl for sex. Anyway, after a few minutes I turned the radio on, happy to hear Offspring, one of my favorite bands. Happy driver vibes ensued.
However, something struck me. The Offspring song I was enjoying was “Sucker With No Self-esteem”, about a guy who knew his “girlfriend” was using him for sex but, hey – at least he was getting sex. What’s the difference? Why did I automatically turn one off but jam to the other?
I analyzed my instinctual emotional reactions to both songs (Yes, I know. I need a life). In any case, it became very apparent as the Offspring song ended that I felt sorry for the “narrator”. He’s getting used, he knows it, he’s taking what he can…
…but it still hurt. I didn’t feel that in Saving Abel’s song, hence my instant rejection of it. I looked up the lyrics later. This is what I got from Saving Abel’s song:
It’s not like
I wanna stick around
It’s just tonight
I’m gonna lay you down…
So basically, the guy doesn’t even want to be there…it’s just sex. There’s also references in the song about how the girl knows how to keep his secrets; IE: she’ll keep her mouth shut. I may be old fashioned, but that sort of thing pisses me off – hence my innate dislike of the song.
Then I looked at Offspring’s song:
Well I guess I should stick up for myself
But I really think it’s better this way
The more you suffer
The more it shows you really care
What gets me are the last three lines. True enough, this guy is letting things drag on because of sex, just like the other song. Here, though – there’s a cost. A price. The kicker? This guy’s really in love, and he figures that’s how you show that you care…by how much punishment you endure.
So, just few words created empathy in me for this guy. In Saving Abel’s song, the guy is doling out the suffering. In Offspring’s song, the guy IS suffering. Hence my empathy for him.
On a related note, I almost never got Hiram Grange and the Chosen One off the ground. For the first solid month or so, nothing I wrote seemed good, at all.
See, Hiram’s a very pulpy character. Lots of addictions and bizarre predilections. Also a study in contrast. Obsessed. Possessed of a keen intellect dogged by animalistic lusts. Not the sort of character I’d normally write about, and yet the series sounded so fun. I was desperate for it to work out.
The problem? In all my early drafts, I focused solely on his pulpish traits. This was going to be a strange hybrid of Noir/pulp/horror/and who knows what else, so I had to make Hiram all hard and badass. After reading the excerpts the other authors churned out, I thought: “This is SO not going to work out. I just can’t connect with this guy.”
I’m not sure when it happened…maybe it was actually a gradual progression…but I realized my main problem was I felt no empathy for the guy, at all. I felt so distant from the character he existed only as a caricature in my mind, and everything I wrote reflected as much. I slowly understood that to write Hiram Grange – to the best of MY abilities – I had to connect with him. Understand him emotionally. Actually feel for this unlovabale sonofabitch.
So I focused on all the elements we’d developed that had nothing to do with his Noirish traits. His obsession with trying to measure up to his father’s impeccable standards. The shock of seeing his mother commit suicide, the burden he carried, knowing how many lives he’d destroyed with his own hand. His isolation. Detachment. Loneliness.
Also, I may be a bit of moralist (which is just fine by me) but I thought of all the drugs and booze and women and degradation, and what that must do to a person on the inside, how it must warp their own self image, create such a swell of self-loathing and hate deep in the belly. And, I don’t care who you are or how much you deny it, but we’ve all had those mornings when the bathroom mirror showed us someone we intensely hated. We also all question our existence, and the existence of any Order or Purpose or Supreme Being.
And then, suddenly – Hiram came alive. Became a walking, breathing, feeling entity. I hope this doesn’t sound glib, but the rest seemed easy, because I cared for Hiram, now, and could bring him to life.
Every writer has their switch. Mine, apparently, is empathy, and I think that’s important. Who knows why readers love the books and stories they do, but I can’t help thinking – even based on my little experience with the car radio – that empathy plays a large part for many. If we can connect and feel for the characters, then we care what happens. Empathy gives a story more weight. Raises the stakes. Makes plot turns precarious.
Without empathy for the characters – who cares about what happens to them?
Kevin Lucia is the Review Editor for Shroud Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com, or check out his short story The Bag and the Crow online.
Finally, if you have yet to check it out, here’s a sample of Hiram Grange and the Chosen One, for you cash-free reading pleasure.